The Punjab in general and Lahore in particular responded to the new ideas and institutions with a mixture of defensiveness and openness.
The autobiography speaks of Professor Sahni’s public involvement in the form of lectures and displays to popularize the sciences, advance new ideas, question social customs and help spread Brahmo Samaj’s message. The flipside of his activities was the people responding to these activities and their receptivity to entertaining new ideas. The churn of new ideas and organisations was striking in the late-19th- and early-20th- century Punjab.
Both Hinduism and Islam, as practiced in India of those days, came under pressure from the ideas of the Enlightenment, challenging folk beliefs and practices and injecting new interpretations of the religious texts. Broadly two opposing movements emerged in both religions. Amongst the Hindus, Brahmo Samaj was a reformist movement, putting forth theistic beliefs in a Supreme Being, promoting anti-casteism and widow remarriage, etc. Arya Samaj was a puritanical revivalist movement of Hinduism. Both had developed followings in Lahore, spreading out to the rest of the province.
Among Muslims, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan started the reformist movement in the late 19th century, by advocating for reconciling Islamic teachings with the demands of contemporary times. Dar-ul-Uloom Deoband (1866) and its Deobandi movement were the puritanical revivalist movement in Islam. Also Wahabism took roots in Punjab – representing yet another puritanical movement.
It is not for me to recount the history of these movements. The point is that the challenge of the Enlightenment ideas and colonial rule gave rise to a reappraisal of the beliefs and practices in both religions. These movements created considerable intellectual and ritualistic ferment in the Punjab. And it continues today, though lately it appears that revivalism is quite clearly carrying the day. Hindutva amongst Hindus and Islamic fundamentalism amongst Muslims are presently ascendant.
The movements that began with the arrival of the British are still influencing the religious and social life of the two communities on both sides of the Partition border.
Professor Sahni describes a systemic – not episodic – pattern of British racism, which rested fundamentally on them regarding Indians as lesser beings. And this was the case even though the British relied on Indians as soldiers and lower-level public officials to maintain their rule.
Professor Sahni had many personal run-ins with the racism of his British colleagues and bosses – even strangers. Both at the Indian Meteorological Department and at Government College, Lahore, he found himself being gratuitously blamed for the misdeeds of his British colleague, simply because he was Indian. It was expected that Indians could not be as competent as the British.
The final blow was the promotion of his British junior as the Head of Department at Government College. This, in fact, drove Professor Sahni to retire.
There was the incident of a British man elbowing him whilst standing next to him, without any reason. This wanton aggression turned into an elbowing and pushing match between them on a railway platform. At another time a British man protested having to sit next to him in a tonga – as he was Indian.
In the times that Professor Sahni writes about, such incidents were common. My own grandfather, an inspector in the railways, used to narrate that whenever a few ‘goras’ (white men) were sitting in the compartment of a train, they would kick out Indians. He carried a mark from a gash on his forehead that he described to be the result of a fistfight with a British soldier on being pushed out of a compartment.
Professor Sahni describes a systemic – not episodic – pattern of British racism
The overt racism of the early days of British rule contributed to the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh in 1919. It fuelled the political desire for self-rule in India.
Professor Ruchi Ram Sahni’s autobiography shows him to be a man of high ideals, immense capabilities and enlightened values. He educated himself to be free from communal prejudices and superstitions.
Of course, the autobiography is also limited by the concerns of those times. He does not reveal his domestic life. There are no women’s names in it. Similarly there are no references to the life of the poor or any concern with their plight. The few Muslims whose names appear in the autobiography were his much-admired Persian teachers in school and college and an occasional Muslim colleague or friend such as the Mistry in charge of his workshop.
Understandably, the autobiography is mostly focused on himself, his achievements and concerns. As such it provides valuable contemporary insights into the social change that swept him along.
Mohammad Qadeer is Professor Emeritus at Queen’s University, Canada. His recent books are Pakistan: Social and Cultural Transformations in a Muslim Nation (Vanguard, 2011) and Multicultural Cities: Toronto, New York and Los Angeles (University of Toronto Press, 2016). He may be reached at MQ35@hotmail.com